How to start a food business in Oakland #1: Figuring out what to make

At Forage Kitchen, we’ve created a space where people with or without a food background can fulfill their dream of starting a food business. To that end, I thought I’d write up a no-nonsense guide on how to get started. Here goes!

1.     What to make:

If you don’t know what you want to make, starting a food business can seem daunting. I suggest picking something you really love and which—in your opinion—you haven’t seen done well. Running a business is hard, and it’s even harder if you’re making something that you’re not really excited about. Don’t worry if you can’t see yourself making it for the rest of your life, just make sure you’re excited about it RIGHT NOW.

Most of the success of any business rests on the passion of its owners. People want to support people who are excited about what they’re doing. That excitement will show though in all kinds of ways, from the way you talk about it and how good it tastes, to your marketing and the employees you hire, so make sure the excitement is there, or your chances of success will probably be slim.

If you’re still stuck, go to a market you see yourself selling in and observe what they have. Is there anything you LOVE that you’ve never seen sold? Look at what’s out there, but most importantly, at what’s not there.

2.     Start at home with a Cottage Food Permit:

As much as I’d love to tell you that, as soon as you find your idea, you should come to Forage Kitchen, it just wouldn’t be true. Start at home. With all the costs of renting a kitchen (even the much-reduced costs of being in a shared space like ours), it’s very hard to get a brand new business off the ground. You want to be 100% certain of your product before making that investment.

We’re lucky in California to have access to Cottage Food permits, which allow you to make products at home to sell at farmers markets and to local stores.

Unfortunately, this permit doesn’t cover all food products, only “non-potentially hazardous foods.” (Basically, you can’t make anything that you’d need to store in a refrigerator).  I’m not an expert on this, but the great folks over at SELC (a group that was VERY instrumental in getting the law passed) have an FAQ section that should answer any questions you have on this issue Check it out here.

For everything else, you’ll need to use a commercial kitchen before you start selling. I’d still recommend being insanely over-prepared before taking this step. Have everything ready: your branding,. your packaging, your consumer trials. Get people to try your product (and not just your friends, because they’ll all tell you “IT’S AMAZING!!!”)

I’m not suggesting that your product isn’t amazing, but you’ll save a lot of time and cash by getting second opinions. Forage Kitchen organizes a great venue called “Tasting Table” at BatchMade Market (each first Friday of the month), where you can drop off your food items and get consumer feedback, which is super helpful. But you can go even further. Set up a table down the street from a farmers market and offer samples. Go on Craigslist and offer free food in exchange for feedback. Email food makers you love and ask for their opinion. Come up with your own clever ideas! In my experience, food veterans love to help passionate newbies—but you need to ask. Don’t be shy! I had knots in my stomach cold calling folks when I first started (I still do!), but I can’t overstate the importance of putting yourself out there. You won’t be sorry.

Just make sure you know what you’re doing before paying for a kitchen. Money burns fast once you get to that step.

Here’s a link to the cottage food permit: https://www.acgov.org/aceh/documents/CFO_Model_Registration-Permitting_Form_12-21-2012.pdf

SELC FAQ: http://www.theselc.org/cottage_food_law_faq

Next post: Brass tacks! My business partner Matt will give a step by step layout of what permits you'll need and where to get them.

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How to succeed on Kickstarter (or at least some tips to point you in the right direction)


Over five years ago, I launched my first Kickstarter campaign, and raised $156,000 to launch Forage Kitchen, and I've been meaning to write about it ever since. Now that the business is open and running seems like a good time to relay my real experience creating and running a campaign in the hopes it will help someone out there to jump over mistakes I made and see what worked for me. If you’re creating a campaign for a product pre-sale, a lot of this won’t apply, but more so for community based projects

I’m sure you’ve all witnessed the meteoric ascent of million dollar projects succeeding. Perhaps, with rose-colored glasses, and stars in your eyes, you imagined yourself achieving the same success for your project. The truth is, while Kickstarter is an amazing platform for product pre-sales, it's only a fairly good platform for everything else.

After my campaign, a lot of people got in touch with me and asked for my advice. Wanting to be optimistic and supportive, I told everyone that I was certain they could do it, and to go for it! Unfortunately, a number of those people haven't had that much success with it, so I have started to be a bit more conservative in my responses.

Before you even think about launching a Kickstarter campaign, here are some things to think about:

First, it's important to understand that Kickstarter is a platform where people whose support you already have will be able to voice that support with their dollars. Rather than expecting to win people over with your campaign, you must build your audience elsewhere and then lead them to your Kickstarter campaign. The good folks at Kickstarter have made this clear in their supporting materials, and I feel it's extremely important.

Unless people are already aware of the product or service you offer, it will be difficult to find support for your campaign. It's highly unlikely that people will find out about your project from the site itself. My campaign was featured for several weeks on the Popular Projects section on the front page, and it was mentioned twice in the Kickstarter newsletter. Neither of these initiatives helped me to gain very much in the way of pledges.

What I found to be the most effective strategy was to reach out to the people in my e-mail database and in my networks on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. At the time I started my campaign, I had an e-mail list comprising over 40,000 locals, and a social media reach of a further 15,000.  I'm not saying it's impossible to  succeed without this scale of reach, but it is a factor worth considering when you’re setting your goals. It isn't easy raising money via Kickstarter. I’ve come to think of it as a tool that's more suited to promotion rather than to fundraising.

Think very carefully and objectively about the people whose support you're counting on. Why will they want to support you? Is there a clear and specific need for what you do in your community? Will you be addressing a social issue that affects a great number of people? Are you offering a reward that people truly require or desire? Have you spoken to a lot of people about your idea, and have they expressed their interest in supporting it? Do you have a long list of media contacts who will help to promote your campaign? Is there a huge niche community eagerly anticipating this kind of product, film, space or event? If the answer to one or more of these questions is no, I would advise you to think twice about setting a high Kickstarter goal. The month I spent promoting my Kickstarter campaign was, by far, the most stressful month of my entire life. There are easier ways to raise money. I’m glad I did it, but I never will do it again.

If this rant hasn’t dissuaded you, I can understand that. When I was in your position, nothing would have convinced me that I shouldn't try it. If that's the case, you may be interested in next week's post. I'll be sharing a blow-by-blow account of how I went about it, what I did wrong, and what I did right. Launching a successful Kickstarter campaign requires a fair amount of preparation and support, and I'll be happy to tell you about how it worked for me.

In my next post I’ll give a step by step on what I did for my campaign…

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Partner: Forage Kitchen

Our first six months


It’s been six months since we opened Forage Kitchen, so it’s a good time to reflect on where we’re at and where we’re going. It still seems surreal that the space is actually open. After years of pushing, starting with our Kickstarter campaign almost five years ago, to when Matt (my cousin and business partner, an indispensable part of this enterprise) and I started working together in 2013, to our search for investors (it’s amazing how hard it is to get someone to invest in an actual building in the tech capital of the world), to the seemingly endless search for a location (we were so close to acquiring one of over a dozen spaces that we were designing the interiors before the deals fell through), to the delays with our construction (the project was more than a year behind schedule). It’s been quite an experience.

What kept us going through all that was a concrete faith that someday it would exist. We weren't sure how long it would take, or how we would afford it, or where it would be, only that it would eventually happen. I really feel that’s the recipe for success—just convincing yourself that there’s no other option.

Six months after opening, the space still has that new car smell. At the end of the day I sometimes sit alone in the café, with a beer and a cookbook, and I just revel in the reality of the space. How unlikely it was that it would actually work—how often it felt like it would never happen.

We’ve been really happy about the crew of chefs that are using the space.  We thought it was going to fill up a lot faster than it did, which caused some financial hand wringing, but we’ve come to see that these things just take time. In fact, it usually takes several months from the moment people email us to when they actually start booking, a multi-part process that involves obtaining permits and negotiating the amount of hours needed, among other things. Some people just disappear, but the good ones sign up. I’ve always said that in shared spaces, it’s always one person that ruins it for everyone: that one chef who doesn’t clean up, or uses more space than he or she needs, or brings in too many people. To be honest, that chef was sometimes me. That’s why I know the type so well!

Thankfully, no one in our space fits that bill. Our crew consists of friendly, open, interesting, and ambitious folks, including our friends at Thistle, who cook 10K meals per week, to Eat Nibble, run by Sally, a first-time food entrepreneur.  We like to emphasize that our space is perfect for novices, that there is no stupid question about how to use equipment or scale up a recipe, and that Matt will sit down with anyone who has permit questions. Likewise, I’m happy to give feedback on recipes or to lend a hand with cooking.

When I first walked into a shared kitchen, I had no professional experience, and it struck me as a pretty scary place: huge equipment I’d never used before, serious busy folks running around with no time to lead me through the finer points of emptying a fryer (I’m still not 100% sure how to do it well…). I want our space to be different, a space where people support each other and aren’t scared to ask questions. Everyone was a newbie at some point. Open communication is a treasured virtue at Forage Kitchen. The more I push for candor and openness, the more I enjoy being in it.

BatchMade Market, our monthly event when our chefs sell and sample food in the kitchen on First Fridays, has been a high point. I loved running the underground market, with the exception of the huge production and constant wrangling with the Health Department over legality. What made it so worthwhile was the community of eager chefs, all so excited to share what they made, and seeing how happy it made them to have an adoring public sample and purchase their food.

BatchMade represents what’s best about running a market. We get between 400-600 people per month, and currently five to seven companies are set up (which may expand as the weather improves), preparing everything from fresh oysters to BBQ pork sandwiches to heritage bacon. I get to bartend, which is one of my favorite things to do because it puts me in touch with people who are excited to discover the space. Meanwhile, all-night crowds roll through for food and drink. It’s always a great night.

There’s something about that event that feels like the culmination of my vision: tons of happy people working hard to realize their dream, with Forage Kitchen as their foundation. I think of the Kitchen as a real platform for other people’s ideas. Sure, we have our own projects, like the meat curing room I’m building and the temp-controlled fan/cooling system. But we really want it to be a space that other people use to create what they want to see. Whether that’s a pop-up, a product, a cooking class, or something we haven’t even imagined, the Kitchen is an amazing resource that should be used as much as possible. If you have an idea, we want to hear it!

It’s been a wonderful, sometimes stressful, six months. An important lesson I’ve learned throughout this time is that things work out as they should when you trust yourself and your intentions. I can’t wait to see how this space will change six months from now!

Iso Rabins
Partner: Forage Kitchen